I is for Institutionalisation (Part Two)

by Mitchell Wilson

Part Two: Life at the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia

[TW: Institutionalisation, Ableism, Abuse, CSA]

Unless you have lived it, it is impossible to truly comprehend the horror of life in a large institution.  Most of us can only begin to imagine as we look at pictures or watch old black and white video footage.  In this post I have tried to give some idea, based on the things I have heard from survivors and the records I have discovered in archives.  But it is still only scratching the surface.  Many stories have yet to be told and many truths remain hidden.  As Huronia Regional Centre survivor Cindy Scott says,

“You have no idea.”

In a society that devalued and dehumanized people with disabilities, many already faced abuse at home in their communities.  Others came from loving families but it was common for doctors to pressure parents to send their children to institutions.  Children’s aid societies also removed children from poor families and sent them to the institution. Parents were discouraged from visiting and told that doing so would disrupt their children’s adjustment.  “Residents” were told that the reason their parents didn’t visit was because they didn’t love them.  When visits did occur they were extremely controlled, “residents” wore different clothing than usual and parents were not allowed past a certain point in the institution.

Once removed from their families and communities and completely segregated from “normal” society, the likelihood of abuse occurring increased even further.  Staff, many of whom didn’t view disabled people as fully human, were given complete control over every aspect of “residents” lives.   Unsurprisingly these kinds of mind sets and conditions lead to rampant abuse, and survivors have vivid memories of what they endured.

Beatings were a regular occurrence and survivors remember a wide variety of instruments being used including straps, cribbage boards, radiator brushes and shoe soles from the institution’s shoe shop.  Often these would be given names, such as Bee-Sting, Shillelagh or Sweet Marie.  “Residents” feet were beaten often because it made bruises easier to hide, though some survivors recall being beaten around their genitals as well.  “Residents” who lived in the institution during the 1940’s and 1950’s recall physical abuse that was even more extreme.  Staff poured alcohol on “residents” buttocks and lit them on fire or poured alcohol on the floor around them, trapping them in a circle of flames.

Harold Dougall, a “resident” from 1960-1966, was placed in charge of four younger boys due to staff shortages. “Hit ‘em first, ask questions later” is the instruction he remembers being given but instead he taught them how to bathe themselves.  Others weren’t so lucky.  Brian Logie, who was also incarcerated at the institution during the 60’s, recalls being forcibly bathed by staff on many occasions.  If staff felt he hadn’t washed himself thoroughly enough he would be forced to take either a scalding or a freezing shower for an allotted period of time.  Cindy Scott, who was first institutionalised in 1971, remembers being forced to bathe in front of seven male staff members.

Conditions like those described above lead to rampant sexual abuse.  Some remember being assaulted up to once or twice a week by both staff and other “residents”.  Many girls, who were on parole working as domestics in Orillia, faced sexual assault there as well.  Staff members were generally discrete and many assaults occurred in side rooms or in the tunnel system that connected the various buildings.  Brian recalls:

“I remember most of it happened in the back bathroom. There was a shower room, the bathroom was across the hallway and there was a little corridor between one place and the other. It was like a sun room. This is where they used to take us.  I can’t even begin to tell you what they used to do.”

Sexual abuse was often used as a form of “discipline”.  “Residents” were stripped naked and made to stand for hours at a time, touching their toes or spread eagle against the wall.  The staff also forced “residents” to lay naked in a line, with each “resident’s” nose in the buttocks of the resident in front of them.  Other forms of “discipline” involved physical and verbal abuse.  Punishments like “the horseshoe” and “the tunnel” pit “residents” against each other as the majority were encouraged to kick, hit and hurl insults at the “resident” being punished.  Staff often encouraged “residents” to turn against one another, with “favourites” receiving special privileges.  In a scene from the documentary Danny and Nicky, which was filmed at Orillia in the late 1960’s, staff throw pieces of candy onto the floor and watch as “residents” fight over them.

In the 1974 the following rule was set in place by the Deputy Minister of Health:

Striking of Patients: No patient is to be struck for any reason whatsoever; approved methods of necessary patient restraint specifically exclude striking and any other form of unnecessary aggression. Any employee who strikes, slaps or kicks a patient will be dismissed.”

The following year this was amended to read:

Abuse of Patients or Residents: Any employee who abuses a resident by striking, slapping, kicking or by some other means, will be dismissed. Approved methods of management specifically exclude striking and any other form of unnecessary aggression.”

Staff, however, pushed back against these new rules, claiming that they hindered their ability to do their jobs and without corporal punishment “residents” could not be controlled.  In spite of these rules survivors who lived at the Huronia Regional Centre, as it became known in the 1970’s, claim that staff continued to use kicking, slapping, pinching and other forms of physical abuse.  In 1978, a councilor named Samuel Johnson kicked a “resident” in the head.  Johnson was charged with assault and initially fired but a grievance settlement board backed by the Supreme Court of Ontario lead to him being reinstated at his old job.

Use of restraint and seclusion as punishment was a part of institutional life from the beginning.  In his 1931 report, Dr. D.R. Fletcher suggested that straight jackets should be entirely done away with.  Despite this suggestion they were still in use decades later.  Fletcher also found “residents” locked in side rooms for no apparent reason, with only their clothes and a bucket.  Side rooms were unheated as late as the 1950’s but were regularly used as a form of punishment all year around.  In his 1956 inspection, Dr. F.W. Snedden encountered three older women in isolation.  Two of these women had seclusion orders written in 1954 and 1955 with no set time limits.  Snedden also encountered a makeshift side room in the infirmary, where a “resident” had been locked in a store room with only a mattress and bedding.

There were some “residents” of the institution who spent all of their time locked up.  They were forced to live in cage cots, beds with bars like a crib and an barred top.  Many of those who were kept in the cage cots were young children who it was decided could not be properly cared for by the institutions minuscule paid staff.  Spending their days and nights confined in such a small space, many “residents” confined to cage cots experienced muscle atrophy.  Others died before they ever had a chance to leave their cages.

Many aspects of daily life at the institution reinforced the dominance of staff over “residents”.  Following the Second World War much emphasis was placed on hiring veterans returning from overseas and this was reflected in the way the institution was operated.  “Residents” began the morning by lining up and a roll call was conducted.  They were then marched to the recreation hall where they were told where to go next.  “Residents” were never permitted to travel anywhere on the grounds on their own and were always moved from place to place in groups holding hands, with a contingent of staff traveling with them.  This even extended to “residents” using the washroom and on the rare occasion when they were permitted to play outside it was not uncommon for “residents” to wet themselves rather than interrupt their friends’ recreation time.

Another way that the staff/“resident” hierarchy was demonstrated was meals.  Food for staff was prepared separately from food for residents.  The 1931 inspection report provides an example of a staff dinner and a “resident” dinner.  While staff received a meal of soup, roast mutton, potatoes, carrots and raisin pie, “residents” were given stew, mashed potatoes and tapioca pudding.  Many survivors remember the food being subpar, sometimes in extreme ways.  One remembers being forced to eat porridge with ants in it while Cindy recalls finding glass in a younger “resident’s” hotdog.

The government documents also shed some light on the poor quality of food produced at the facility.  An inspector visiting the bake shop in 1942 found a number of poorly shaped, moist loaves.  The attitude expressed by staff was that these loaves were being made for “low grade residents” and as such their quality didn’t matter.  The 1937 report notes that some “residents” lacked forks, knives and even plates at meal times and one constant problem noted across many reports is food being served cold.  Initially this was because the institution was not using steam tables and plate heaters they had been provided with.  Later, when food was transported to dining rooms in heated carts, it was still placed on tables up to an hour before the meal began.

In 1936 the institution’s name was changed again, this time to the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia.  While some “residents” were deemed to be “high grade” enough to receive education, what they did receive was substandard at best.  In 1940 only 215 of 1,985 “residents” received any kind of academic training.  A report of the program conducted that year found it highly lacking, with classrooms spread over a wide area and many located in basements that were not adequately lit.  Classes were too large to be practical and the author of the report felt that the school’s existence was more a matter of making the facility look good than actually imparting education to “residents”.

The remainder of the institution’s population who were not deemed fit for educating were either used as labour or left to their own devices with little to do for recreation.  Because of staff shortages “residents” carried out almost all labour necessary for the operation of the institution, from moving coal in the power house to manufacturing shoes, the surplus of which was sold to other facilities and the army.  Leo Gattie was one “resident” who was tasked with shoveling both snow and coal during the winter, while in the summer he would spend all day mowing grass with a push mower.  He was often tasked with shoveling the path and steps to the railway tracks, which were rarely used.  The wind from the lake blew more snow in as he shoveled and he would need to shovel most sections more than once, making it an all day task.

Conditions in other work areas were also poor.  An inspection report from 1931 found the laundry to be in extremely poor condition.  Improper ventilation meant that the ceiling was constantly dripping condensation and the floor and ironing tables were wet, creating an extremely unsanitary working environment.  The facility was not suited to the demands placed on it and laundry typically came out a dirty gray colour after a few washings.  A later report from 1937 finds the laundry “taxed to capacity” with only four washing machines and an average of 26,000 items passing through each week.  There was also no suitable place to dry woolens so some 300 blankets were left in the hallways until the hot air dryer could be used on weekends.  The 1937 report also indicates that the sanitary conditions brought up in 1931 remain a problem:

“Drops of moisture could be seen on the ceiling and the air was saturated with it and the plaster on the ceiling is falling.  It is remarkable that there is not more sickness as a result of the working conditions here.”

Many survivors suffer from chronic health problems as a result of the abuse and substandard conditions they experienced at the institution.

By the 1930’s, many of the buildings at the institution had fallen into disrepair and this, coupled with staff shortages, lead to deplorable living conditions.  According to the 1931 report, in one cottage there was only one attendant to 32 “residents” and six “residents” suffering from scabies were found locked in with no one caring for them.  Another fourteen “residents” were found locked into a poorly ventilated room.  Examining the mortuary, which was at that time located in the basement of one of the cottages, the inspector found dried blood on the table and rust on the instruments.

Washrooms were a consistent problem mentioned in almost all reports made between the 1930’s and 1950’s.  In 1931, D.R. Fletcher was extremely disturbed by the lack of privacy available for “residents”.  He found that there were no dividers between toilets and no individual showers, however despite his concern most washrooms in the facility remained this way at least as late as the mid-1970’s.  Other reports reveal more issues including oiled tiles that collect dust, cracked toilet bowls, windows that had been painted over repeatedly and excessive clutter due to a lack of storage space.  In the 1937 report we find a shower room in Cottage A where the wooden ceiling is in a state of collapse.

The 1937 inspection also found Cottage A to be sixteen people over capacity, with some “residents” sleeping two to a bed.  Seventy-eight of the 254 “residents” living there were described by the inspector as “very low grade idiots” and, as described in part one of this history; they were housed on the uppermost floor.  Only two nurses were available to care for these patients and the cottage smelled strongly of feces.  Soiled laundry was found piled at the foot of the stairs and in a store room.  In another cottage a pillow case was discovered covered in blood and pus and another was found to be covered in dried feces.  Wooden floors absorbed urine and other bodily fluids, which lead to excessive scrubbing and rot.  While inspecting the institution in 1940, Dr. L.S. Penrose encountered a woman with a large ulcer on her knee.  She told him this was the result of how much time she had spent scrubbing the floors.  Despite repeated recommendations by inspectors, many building still had wooden floors in the 1950’s, instead of the easier to clean terrazzo.

Another location visited during the 1937 inspection was the Dunn Farm, also known as Cottage F.  This was a farm colony about half a mile from the main institution, where 23 older “residents” lived and were supervised by an attendant.  The building they lived in was found to be in deplorable condition, with several broken windows and a collapsing verandah.  Floors were bad and daylight could be seen through the walls of the attic.  The toilet was located in a shed outside, making its use impractical during the winter months.

Temperature could fluctuate widely from one area of the institution to another and even from day to day in the same location.  In the sitting room of Cottage L “residents” huddled around two radiators trying to stave off the cold.  One of these was found to be malfunctioning so badly that one end was so hot it could not be touched while the other was completely cold.  Like most radiators in the hospital these did not have guards and burns were extremely common.  Windows in this cottage were old and could not be properly closed, leading to a temperature of about 12 degrees Celcius/55 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 1937 all of the cottages completely lacked fireproofing and some still had not been fireproofed as late as the 1950’s.  Cottage M did have a fire alarm system, then state of the art, but it was not connected.  By the early 1940’s fire escapes had been added to some buildings and wooden staircases were being replaced with fireproof concrete and steel.  Overcrowding continued to be a problem and in 1942 several cottages had more “residents” than beds, with seventeen boys sleeping on the floor in one case.  Many reports note numerous residents sleeping in enclosed but unheated verandas all year around.  These verandas had flat roofs where snow accumulated and caused leakage in the spring and during winter thaws, sometimes leaving a layer of ice on the floor.

Unsurprisingly, with so many people living in such unsanitary conditions the spread of disease was a major problem.  In the 1930’s inspectors found that there was no suitable way of isolating “residents” with contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis.  By the 1940’s TB Isolation Wards had been established but the negligence of staff continued to undermine efforts to prevent the spread of illness.  During an inspection in 1942 the door to a TB Isolation Ward was found unlocked and no nurse was present to attend to the patients.  In a later report “residents” with contagious skin conditions were found living among the general population.

Preventing the spread of contagious diseases was not the only area where staff performed negligently.  A report from 1945 finds numerous poorly organized medicine cabinets, where external and internal medications were not properly separated and the former were not labeled as poisonous if ingested.  Patient files were also found to be lacking and in many cases there were long expanses were no notes had been made at all.

By the mid-1940’s the institution was housing 2,241 “residents” with only 208 staff employed and it was typical for only one or two attendants to be in charge of 200 plus “residents” during night shifts.  By 1956 the population had risen to 2,504 with a waiting list of 1,600 and it would peak in 1968 with 2,948 “residents”.  A report that year suggested that the institution should be stabilized for a maximum of 1,400 patient beds.

With the publication of Pierre Berton’s article in 1960, the province began to face increasing pressure to do something about the situation at Orillia.  The government had opened a second institution, the Ontario Hospital School, Smith’s Falls (Rideau Regional Centre) in 1951 and in 1961 they opened the Ontario Hospital School for Retarded Children at Cedar Springs (Southwestern Regional Centre).  However both of these facilities became just as overcrowded as Orillia and they too were breeding grounds for abuse.

In the late 1960’s a film crew from the National Film Board of Canada entered the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia and filmed what they saw.  The documentary Danny and Nicky was produced, directed and edited by Douglas Jackson and tells the stories of two boys with Down Syndrome.  Danny lives in the community with his family, while Nicky lives at the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia.  The message of the film was clear: people with disabilities were better off living in the community and not in large institutions.

By 1975 the “resident” population of the Huronia Regional Centre had been brought down to 1,566, but most of the former “residents” were living in other, smaller institutions rather than in the community and living conditions at HRC seemed to have changed little, despite the dramatic decrease in population.  Most “residents” continued to live in large warehouse like wards or smaller, multiple bed dormitories.  “Resident’s” who “behaved well” were now able to get passes to visit downtown Orillia, though citizens of the town resisted this.  By 1991 there were around 700 “residents” at Orillia, but as the number of “residents” dwindled the number of staff climbed and so the fight to close the the Huronia Regional Centre become one not against the eugenicist ideals of mass institutionalisation but against staff members fighting to keep their jobs at the expense of disabled people’s freedom.

On March 31st, 2009, the Huronia Regional Centre finally closed after 133 years of operation.  One year later, survivors Marie Slark and Patricia Seth launched a class action lawsuit against the Government of Ontario.  The lawsuit was settled out of court and in 2013, Ontario Premiere Kathleen Wynne apologized for the abuse which occurred at the facility.  As part the settlement, survivor’s were allowed to return to the institution and much of the survivor testimony in this post is drawn from videos taken during one of those visits.

There is a cemetery located on what was once the grounds of the asylum at Orillia, where more than 2,000 people were buried between 1893 and 1971.  Some of them were old, locked up for life, while other’s died young.  Most of the graves in the cemetery are unmarked but it wasn’t always that way.  Originally, numbered stones marked the resting place of those buried in that little plot of land, but in the 1970’s staff at the institution removed many of them to use as paving stones.  Sometime later the institution chaplain recovered as many of these markers as possible but he was unable to match them to their original locations, so they remain set in a large concrete pad.  Remember Every Name, a group founded by survivors and other concerned community members, is determined to see the cemetery properly memorialised.  They continue push the government for answers, most recently about septic infrastructure that appears to have been built through the cemetery in the 1950’s.

There were others who never left Orillia, like the children with hydrocephalus, sent to the institution to die, or the babies stillborn to “residents”.  No one knows where they were buried.  Some survivor’s believe the babies were buried in the woods, behind the baseball diamond, while others think it’s more likely they were disposed of in the boilers.

On October 4th, 2012, Park’s Canada unveiled a series of plaques to commemorate women of national historical significance and buildings of national historical significance related to women.  Among these was plaque dedicated to Dr. Helen MacMurchy.  At no point does the plaque mention her commitment to eugenics, her role as inspector of the feebleminded or the countless poor, disabled and immigrant women whose lives she worked to destroy.

There are some who say that what happened at Orillia is in the past and that people must move on but they would be mistaken.  The ideology that led to a place like the Huronia Regional Centre is still alive and well.  It can be seen in the “better dead than disabled” narrative, the 92% abortion rate for fetuses identified as having Down Syndrome, the quest to prevent and cure Autism, the presumption of incompetence, the push to blame those with psychiatric disabilities for gun violence and the fact that over 90% of disabled women are victims of sexual assault.  In western Canada, three large institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities continue to operate.  People with disabilities also continue to be dehumanized and devalued and institutionalised abuse still occurs in nursing homes, psychiatric wards, group homes, segregated special education classrooms and other facilities.  Some have recommended a return to mass institutionalisation as a solution to the number of people with disabilities currently incarcerated in prisons.  But I know and I hope you know, too, that we should never return to that.  In conclusion I will leave you with this quote, written by Pierre Berton in 1960, before the full extent of the horror was truly known.

“Remember this: After Hitler fell, and the horrors of the slave camps were exposed, many Germans excused themselves because they said they did not know what went on behind those walls; no one had told them. Well, you have been told about Orillia.”

This is part of a series of posts addressing themes from the neurodiversity movement and paradigm which will be published during the course of April 2016. To read the rest of the posts, please click here.